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GRAVES: A bad basis for good standards

  There are few things worse than someone who simply can't resist using that acidic phrase, "I told you so." (I am tempted to say "There is nothing worse ..." but was inoculated against that particular non-literalism by my son who, upon hearing me say that once, responded with "Really, Dad, nothing worse? The Holocaust? Eternal damnation? The fact that the universe must inevitably end in either a fiery contraction or an endless, frozen expansion?" Since then, I have stood permanently corrected.)

Thus, I won't say that I told anyone so about the current fretting in our state and nation over the Common Core standards but I will say that those who didn't foresee the fact that many groups would in the end object to them must have been wearing blinders the size of Mr. Ed's.

OK, a bit of background. The Common Core standards for education were written in an attempt to put all of the states on a level playing field in terms of student achievement comparisons and were offered to states on a voluntary basis. No state is forced to adopt them. Nevertheless, South Dakota, along with about 90 percent of the states in the Union, have done so. They have largely because doing so allows states to comply with federal education legislation (No Child Left Behind and its waiver-spawned progeny) without having to draft their own assessments, thus saving significant amounts of dollars and trouble. They have also adopted them because writing standards is an incredibly complex and difficult task and adopting standards by a national commission is one way to ensure solid standards crafted by content and instructional experts.

Given these advantages, why did I object to the Common Core standards long ago, before they were adopted by South Dakota? I did so because I felt this would create a national set of educational standards -- and likely an increasingly common curriculum -- across the nation which would quickly be "enforced" by the federal government which, constitutionally, has no role in education. Look it up: education is a function reserved to the states. I like that in America we pay attention to our constitutions and I like that states can act like laboratories for education, with one state's success signaling a promising initiative to the rest and one state's failure demonstrating a spot in the yard not to be stepped in.

Increasingly, both in South Dakota and the nation at large, various groups are now attempting to fend off the Common Core standards, a more difficult task today than before they were adopted. Yet their objections are quite different than mine, both originally and today. Allow me to review just a few of them:

1. The Common Core standards are an attempt to produce a workforce, not an educated populace capable of self-government. I can't agree. Though I have not reviewed the standards from all other states, the Common Core standards are, in fact, at a higher order of thinking skills than South Dakota's previous standards. If anything, the CC standards, if met by American students, would produce a more highly skilled and critical-thinking-capable population. Its inclusion of the review of important documents in American history and non-fiction exemplars are proof of this. The Common Core standards are, in fact, genuinely rigorous. The experience of states which have already adopted CC and tested students on that basis, i.e. plummeting proficiency rates, bear this out.

2. The Common Core standards will require an extensive system of student achievement monitoring which will be available to both the federal government and industry, jeopardizing the privacy rights of the American people. This one is a bit more complicated. In fact, adopting the CC has nothing necessarily to do with such individual student achievement monitoring, though it is increasingly part of related federal legislation. Thus, it isn't really fair to blame CC for the erosion of privacy rights; a different legislative culprit should be held accountable for that. But it is also true that in an age when the National Security Agency has now admitted to domestic spying on American citizens accused of no crimes and the IRS has been reasonably accused of political machinations, it is more and more difficult to simply argue that the federal Department of Education would, of course, be above such doings.

3. The Common Core standards will teach students what to think rather than how to think. While affective objectives, those relating to teaching children what to think about certain things and how to act, are indeed included in the CC, they are also certainly included in current state standards throughout the country. Etiquette and patriotism are two examples of positive beliefs we work to help students inculcate while racism and acceptance of historical evils (Holocaust, slavery, etc.) are examples of beliefs we work to help students reject. Almost no one objects to affective objectives per se; they only object when they do not agree with the affective objective in question. Thus, this really isn't a fair critique of the CC either, though the fact that these are really national standards does make it enormously more difficult to object to any specific item than it would if these were state-specific. Pierre is a long ways away during winter driving conditions but Washington, D.C., is far-flung even in the most clement of weather.

So, given that I disagree with most of the criticisms of the CC standards, does this mean I am now in favor of their adoption? Yes and no. Yes, as they are now South Dakota's standards and as an educator in this state, I share the responsibility of educating our children on this basis; they are a fait accompli. And, yes, because they are pretty solid standards. But no, because I continue to object to federal intrusion into the state function of education.

So, if necessary and worthwhile, let's have the debate we probably should have had back during the nationwide adoption process. But let's be fair and accurate in our arguments because, hey, there's nothing worse than exaggeration and hyperbole.

-Joe Graves is superintendent of the Mitchell School District.